Juan Williams Makes It Too Simple

Fears of "others" may be real, but we must also navigate the complexities of our multiracial society.


Juan Williams (no relation), who, you will recall, was fired from NPR in October after making remarks about "getting nervous" when he gets on the plane and sees people "who are in Muslim garb," reignited the media flare-up over racial profiling while guest-hosting The O'Reilly Factor last week. Responding to his interlocutor, Dr. Caroline Helmand of Occidental College, Williams spoke in syntactically messy sentences that are nonetheless worth quoting in full:

Helmand: "I happen to agree with Schiller that your comments were bigoted. I think that if I were to say that I clutch my purse every time I walk by a black man, that might resonate with a lot of Americans. It might be the truth, but it's a bigoted statement. I certainly wouldn't have fired you, but I do think there was some truth in that video that we don't get to talk about because we are afraid to have actual discourse in this country."

Williams: "I can't believe that you just said that. You think that simply saying what you think is evidence of bigotry, that all of a sudden it's as if you were walking by a black man that would mean if you were bigoted if you were somewhat nervous? Let me just tell you, with the amount of black-on-black crime in America, I get nervous and I'm a black man. So, I mean, wait a second ... "

Helmand: "There we go again, Juan. I would find that to be racial profiling; that's a bigoted comment."

Williams: "That's a bigoted comment?"

Helmand: "Yes, it is. Just like your comment about Muslims."

Williams: "I'm the father of black young men, and I'm saying that if you saw a couple guys walking around looking like thugs down the street late at night, you're saying, "Oh, I'm not going to think it through." Caroline, I think you are way off base."

This conversation reminds me a lot of one that has been going on in France surrounding the remarks of the right-leaning journalist Eric Zemmour, who pointed out that although ethnic statistics are not kept in the French Republic, if one were to look into it, the truth is that the "the majority of criminals are Arab or black … It's a fact."

Zemmour's comments caused a scandal, but he provided a range of data to back them up that is difficult to counter. In a similar way, Williams' comments on Fox News have invited mountains of backlash, but in the heat of the argument, and because of the shock value of his delivery, we lose sight of the fact that there is a basic truth to what he says: The recent threat of Islamist terrorism on an airplane does come disproportionately from Muslims (this is a tautology); and the threat of violent crime in America does come disproportionately from young black males.

I have crossed the street, left a room or changed a subway car more than once when what was there seemed threatening. I've also been on the receiving end of such snap judgments. It's a humiliating experience to be racially profiled. And as a young black man of woolly hair and tan complexion, oddly enough, I find that it's something I can relate to from a variety of angles.